The potential uses of an old PC

4 min readApr 17, 2022

I like retrocomputing. I routinely emulate an apple classic to run classic word processing apps. One of my prior posts on this blog was about getting postscript support playing nice with a DOS version of MS Works. I emulate old game systems all the time, and keep not only a windows XP vm around because shitty out-of-band requires it, but also because no emulator can nail playing Command and Conquer, a game I dearly love. I know way too many people who spend their time building devices to boot ancient computers and synthesizers off of sdcards, because ancient SCSI hard drives and floppy disks are dying and won’t last the next few years.

While watching a retro computer review of the Vendex Headstart PC, a machine that didn’t even come with a hard disk but claimed to be easier to use than machines that just dropped you at a DOS prompt, I found myself nerd sniped by an issue.

What would you do with such a system, now? Could you make it your daily driver?

Let’s say you’re trapped at a family reunion for a month. Or you’re trapped in a cabin in a snowdrift. You find yourself needing to do a bunch of internet work from a place where your only net connection is a 286-era PC running DOS and at-best Windows 3.11. TCP/IP just plain isn’t an option. You have a serial port. Your grandma has a jitterbug phone but doesn’t use the internet. Shockingly, she no longer has a landline.

Dialup ISP’s and landlines are becoming a thing of the past, but you could probably find a local earthlink number (but good luck cancelling it after).

With no network stack to speak of, tethering off your phone is a non-starter. Many older phones did support the ability to be a dialup modem, you could dial a fake number and initiate a PPP connection. And maybe — maybe — if that windows 3.1 machine has a copy of Trumpet winsock, you can talk PPP. but on a 286, modern SSH is nigh-on unusable, even if you could find a workable client. No browser that was ever running under a copy of windows that old will speak modern crypto protocols.

The windows 3.1 telnet client is pretty awful. (And you didn’t configure OPIE or S/KEY, so comms in the clear with one-time passwords are also a non-starter.)

However, you have several terminal programs like Procomm Plus with decent ANSI support. And old-school terminals are your friend. They’re beautiful in their elegance.

The solution here becomes that there do exist IOT/Embedded devices that translate RS232/485 to LTE. These are the same exact kinds of things you might connect to a terminal server or some kind of out-of-band serial port in an industrial setting like a building management system. These kinds of things are generally used for your “connection of last resort”, the ones you pay for all year in the hopes you never need them — the trick here is, you’re using it in reverse, terminaling out instead of in.

Now, this is all a silly argument. If you can order an obscure piece of comms hardware, you can of course call apple and order up a macbook. But for me, the thought experiment was: Could I still do my work from a DOS machine? And the answer is surely, yes.

I run my mail in a terminal. I can use our company chat system (Mattermost) in a terminal. I can certainly commit and deploy code from a terminal. Hell, links will load the facebook mobile site reasonably enough to at least check your feed, and you know there’s a dozen console-mode twitter clients out there. And say what you want about slack, IRC is still king in the open source world. And if you’re bored, there’s always nethack.

Talking to VCenter is a *bit* more complicated, but there’s a decent amount of limited functionality available if you SSH directly to your hypervisors.

We have a few systems that require browser-based tasks, but they’re not the bulk of the work. In this imaginary situation, it’s conceivable one could pull out a modern phone for those tasks (as well as reachability).

At a job more than a decade ago, but not much more, a coworker saw me happily working in a terminal and said: “You’re one of those black screen people, aren’t you?”

Yes. And I’m in.




Gushi/Dan Mahoney is a sysadmin/network operator in Northern Washington, working for a global non-profit, as well as individually.